On Feb. 6 Behavioral Health System Baltimore and Baltimore City Police announced the launch of a new collaboration program called L.E.A.D that aims to help low-level drug offenders.

Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott (District 2) was one of the speakers at the announcement of the Baltimore Police Department’s new L.E.A.D. program. (Courtesy photo)

Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott (District 2) was one of the speakers at the announcement of the Baltimore Police Department’s new L.E.A.D. program. (Courtesy photo)

L.E.A.D. (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) is a pre-booking diversion program according to a press release. Baltimore police officers can refer individuals suspected of low-level drug or prostitution crimes to case managers, who will help them access an array of services including drug treatment, mental health services, and housing aid.

Individuals facing arrest can choose not to participate in L.E.A.D., and will go through the normal criminal justice process.

“The L.E.A.D. program represents an important paradigm shift in the way we approach helping people with substance use disorders,” BHSB President and CEO Kathleen Westcoat said at a press conference. “Rather than responding with handcuffs, the LEAD program offers individuals a path to treatment and support services, which evidence shows is the most cost-effective approach to addressing substance abuse.”

Baltimore Crisis Response will help operate the program with oversight by BHSB.

“LEAD provides our officers with an alternative to arresting the same person over and over when we know that person needs help,” said BCP Commissioner Kevin Davis at the news conference.

“Baltimore has an entrenched opioid addiction epidemic and we think it’s time to invest in a public-health approach instead of a criminal approach. We’re also hopeful that this will be another step in restoring more positive relationships between law enforcement and the community,” said Davis.

Starting as a three year pilot in the west side of downtown Baltimore in an area that connects Martin Luther King Blvd, St Paul Street, Franklin Street, and Pratt Street, the program referrals will originate in this area, clients do not have to live in this specific area.

At least 60 individuals are anticipated to be served by the program at any one time.

In Baltimore City, 24,887 individuals have an opioid use disorder, and one out of every three Maryland residents incarcerated in state prison comes from Baltimore, many for low-level drug crimes. From January 2016 to September 2016, 342 people died of a heroin overdose in the city.

L.E.A.D. has shown promising results in a handful of cities where it’s already being tested. In Seattle, a 2015 study credited the LEAD program with having a significant impact; participants were 58 percent less likely to be arrested again compared to non-participants and were more likely to obtain housing and employment which included legitimate income at any given time after their LEAD referral.

“Criminalizing individuals with the disease of addiction is unscientific, inhumane, and unjust,” said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City’s Health Commissioner.

Baltimore is the sixth U.S. city to implement the LEAD program and is relying on a mix of public and private grant to support the pilot.